Craig Childs - House of Rain
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Field Notebook

August 12, 2008
Sand Dreaming

The river lies in heaps, all of it turned to sand. No apparent life can be seen but for ripples and ribbons forming and dissolving in the wind. Sand glides several hundred feet up the steep north face of a dune, and about 400 feet up it threads around two small, dark circles. Hat brims, they both lie on the ground side by side like an improbable mishap, two unfortunate travelers drown by the shifting earth. But there is life below, sunglasses glinting. Buried up to my chin and lips, my eyes are open, gaping across a horizon of nothing but gentle crests. It looks carnal, naked figures spooned into each other, all shoulders and hips. Am I dreaming? I have been drifting in and out of sleep most of the day. Dream becomes waking, becomes dream again. I blink. Still, I don't know. I snorfle sand from around my mouth and say, "Hey, are you there?" "I'm here," my partner answers as if he's been waiting for my voice. "Are you awake?" I ask. "I think so." "Am I awake?" "I think so." "It's all sand. I'm dreaming about sand." "God," he says. We are quiet again and still I am not sure if I am awake or dreaming. The white misery of the sun peaks around noon in the Gran Desierto of Sonora. A person should not be out at such an hour. Water escapes the skin fast enough to kill in one day, the body's moisture sublimating, turning from flesh to wind without becoming sweat. We cannot afford such loss. To preserve our water, we practice the art of self-burial, digging coffins for our bodies and reclining into them on north slopes where the sun is not so direct. Hats protect the greasy knobs of our heads. I blink again, looking across a silvery landscape, surface temperature of 130°. This is not the blistering expanse of the Sahara, nor are these the massive dunes of the Namib. It is one of the lesser sand seas in the world, 5,000 square miles (the larger ranging toward 100,000). This is enough, though. Does one really need more than sand to every horizon, sand in every orifice? After a certain number of grains and square miles it all seems the same. Mathematical orders of motion and bound-particles tell the same ephemeral tale no matter where in the universe they are. Shadows nick the tops of dunes, the first sign that time is, indeed, still moving forward. Over the length of a couple hours, or what seems like a couple hours, shadows open like sails as the sun arcs west. Heat slowly lifts out of the dunes and we both erupt at the same moment like beetles coming alive. For a moment we stand, two men naked and tall as pillars. I can feel my fingers, the hairs on my legs, my beard pouring down my chest. My companion lets out a roar of satisfaction, his neolithic voice howling into the wind. With that, we glide down the long slope of the dune. Fine as flour, it washes around us like a wake. Belly first, hands clasped ahead as if diving into water, we part the dune. It ripples and purls as if it were water. Though such characteristics have been studied for nearly a century, no mathematical equation has yet been devised to handle the fluid mechanics of sand. This particular sand owes its fineness to the delta of the Colorado River 60 miles distant. This is what remains of the American Southwest, the sediments of nearly 250,000 square miles of eroded earth dumped into a shallow, warm sea, and washed up along gentle beaches. Like the delta of any great river, this one is made of the finest possible sediment, mineral silts and tumbled specks of quartz. The lightest of these sediments are blown inland, millions of years piled upon each other into dune complexes shaped into domes, stars, and crescents. Like most dunes, these make sounds: moans, whispers, and whines. Researchers have been arguing for decades about why sand dunes all over the world do this, and their disagreements have become so heated that scientific careers have been besmirched. The cause of so-called singing dunes is hypothesized to be vibrating sand waves, or the tuning-fork nature of compressed particles, or the amplitude of troughs and crests magnified as if through a bullhorn. My theory is simple, Like huge iron bells, the dunes are ringing. There is no science to it. Bells simply ring. All they had to do was ask. Swimming down the dune-face, we hear groans and thumps echoing beneath us, the kind of sound a mountain of snow makes before an avalanche: guttural commentary. The sounds fade as we glide to a stop at the bottom. Our backpacks are waiting for us mostly buried where we left them earlier in the day. Again, we stand, stretching our hands upward, letting our lungs expand, creatures of the earth. Our every bodily crevice weeps with sand. Clothes on, we hitch gear onto our hips, then up to our shoulders. Our packs are fat with gallons of water, the only water to be found, which we carry westward, going nowhere but deeper. Our long shadows ripple behind us. There is no celebrated reason for us to be here. No companies have sponsored gear or support; no expedition, no research project or a National Geographic adventure. We are simply two men who for years have been curious what it would be like in the largest sand see in North America. Two men came a few weeks before us. I call them men because they were seasoned mountain climbers attempting an expedition across the dunes from one side to the next. They became separated (easy out here) and only one lived. The other was found along a trail of discarded remains. He first dropped his pack, no doubt relieved of the maddening weight of his water. With his supplies left behind -- jettisoned perhaps in attempt to move fast, to get out of the dunes -- he steadily lost his mind. He gave up his boots and socks, then his shirt, then his pants, and finally his hat. At the end of this trail was a blistered and swollen body. He gave up everything layer by layer, until finally his life escaped in the wind. We intend no such end for ourselves. Instead, we do what the dunes tell us to do. We get out of the sun. We swim in evening sand. We walk into the dark. There are simple things you should know to survive here. Do not carry a stove, a pot, or even a bowl. Every piece of gear must serve at least two purposes. Dress like a scavenger. Never set down your pen down, your knife, or anything small enough for the sand to swallow. I recommend coming without pockets. I had to take a knife to mine, slashing my cargo pants and my shirt pocket to let the sand out. In the midnight black of stars, the wind has finally stopped, the space filled with a celestial silence. Even the ringing in the dunes has ceased. I swear I can hear my companion breathing a hundred yards away as he sleeps. We both lie with our backs to the ground. His camp is a high crest, a bed smoothed with his hands. My camp is in the bottom of a trough, a pearl in the bed of an oyster. I stare into a circle of stars. When sunrise comes, we are already walking. A cool wind is on and I feel like the scupper on a ship, sand pouring through the slashes in my pockets, flowing in and out of me. Had I slept? Did I dream? The sun is a white glob on the horizon, its circle masked with mirages as light bends across the night-cooled earth. Depressions in the sand begin filling with heat. They look like pools of mercury. Distant dunes split in two, allowing their top-halves to rise into the sky like dirigibles. Of the many landscapes I have imagined, this is not one. It is nothing I knew could exist, its physics turned inside-out, time interwoven, space merging and springing apart. By noon, or what seems like noon, the dunes are unquestionably real. We stagger to our knees, the insides of our mouths dusted with sand. Nothing more could we possibly desire in our lives. No umbilicus, no car left at a trailhead, no way out but our feet. We have come only deeper into the earth. We begin pawing down to get out of the sun. Another day in gorgeous hell. With my trough dug out, I pause, forehead against tepid sand, forearms holding me up. I want to rest a moment before lying in my sarcophagus, before the countless and sleepless dreams banish all sense of time. I stretch my fingers through the sand, my eyes close enough to distinguish each grain's color. Red, blue, gray, white, and glass-clear. I pick out a black speck and imagine Vishnu Schist from the floor of the Grand Canyon. There is a peach that reminds me of Navajo Sandstone. Blue is Bright Angle Shale. Green is the olivine of the Rocky Mountains. I kiss the grains, my lips picking them up dry. As we touch, I extend up the Colorado River, which no longer flows this far south. It is said that if the alveoli of a person's lungs were stretched out they would cover half a football field. If every vein and capillary were laid end to end they would extend 60,000 miles. In this same way, I spread myself out in the sand, reaching up every gully and cut in the watershed that birthed this supernatural landscape: Gila River, Little Colorado, San Juan, Green. I see mountains and crystal waters at the head. I smell the sour rot of ferns in an aspen grove. Already I am dreaming. I groan and roll to my back. Like pulling a blanket across me, I sweep sand over my body and sink irretrievably into the earth.

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